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Jakarta Post

Lessons learned from Nov. 4 protest

  • Muhammad Fajar
    Muhammad Fajar

    PhD candidate in political science at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

Evanston, Illinois   /   Thu, November 10, 2016   /  07:44 am
Lessons learned from Nov. 4 protest Against blasphemy – Thousands of people joining with the Movement of Indonesian Council Edict Supporters (GNPF MUI) stage a massive rally against inactive Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama’s alleged blasphemy remarks in Jakarta on Nov.4. (Antara/Akbar Nugroho Gumay)

What people were afraid of did not come to pass on Nov. 4. Large-scale riots resembling May 1998 failed to materialize. For the most part Jakarta slept soundly that night. Even though there was looting in Penjaringan, North Jakarta, and clashes in front of the State Palace, in general, the state managed to maintain security, preventing a massive riot from brewing in Jakarta.

Although people might feel relieved, they should be alarmed as the protest has taught us a valuable lesson pertaining to our favored understanding of democracy.

Somehow, we tend to believe that all good things come together with democracy. Democracy is a panacea for all evils in this world such as corruption, intolerance and inequality. Academically, such an understanding contains a flaw, representing a gap between people’s hopes and intellectuals’ investigation.

For instance, Joseph P. Schumpeter, in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, does not believe people can identify what is good for them since they tend to act irrationally. He arrives at a conclusion that one would better understand democracy as competitive struggles for free votes, simplifying the basic constitutive element of democracy into contestation.

In Democracy and the Market, Przeworski says that “the strategies of competing political forces” decide the outcomes under democracy. Therefore, logically, organized political competition can be the only way to banish corruption, intolerance or inequality.

Unfortunately, we did not see any meaningful and intense contestation opposing the Nov. 4 protest. We did not witness a similar collective action that supported pluralism on the same day. This fact indicates that people were busy condemning the flaw in Indonesian democracy.

They swarmed on to social media to curse organizations such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) as the scapegoats of the protest. They also framed religious fundamentalism as an “unexpected outcome” in Indonesian democracy. Sadly, that is the limit of popular arguments currently being aired.

(Read also: Ahok and hate speech: The (unexpected) outcome of democracy)

Letting the protest go unchallenged could be a bad sign for the project of pluralism. Adopting contestation conveys the organization of opposition against those who rallied on Nov. 4. The expectation is to see a similar scale of protest that, for instance, denounces religious fundamentalism.

The bitter lesson for pro-pluralism activists is that any ideas can triumph in democracy as long as they are solidly rooted in a solid organization. The reactions to the Nov. 4 protest demonstrated that an organized movement could shake authority. On the day, 5,000 soldiers and 18,000 police officers (The Jakarta Post, Nov. 1, 2016) were readied to anticipate the rally.

Moreover, the rally successfully forced a negotiation between the protest’s leaders and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla. It also effectively pushed President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to make a public statement on the night of Nov. 4.

Although the state seemed to have tamed the protest firmly, another reading of the situation might say that the protest accomplished its aim of elevating the issue as a national concern, attracting wider audiences. The protest even dared to challenge the state to resolve the problem in a two-week period.

For those who fear the growing influence of such a protest, they should be more concerned. The protest displayed a high mobilization capacity, a missed element by those who opposed the protest.

During and after the rally we became aware of stories such as the protest participants who flocked from outside Jakarta or the free flow of food and drink that maintained the protesters’ energy (the Post, Nov. 4, 2016). The protest not only succeeded in calling people to participate but also to preserve its momentum.

This display of the protestors’ mobilizational power perplexes us with a question: what kind of repertoire has grown around those who proclaim democracy and pluralism?

One possible answer is that online activism does not go hand-in-hand with offline activism. People who are annoyed by the protest often intelligibly discuss complicated democracy-related concepts on social media but fail to back these up with a vigorous movement on the ground.

The same people may also be satisfied with intellectual seminars or television commentaries but are unable to convert sophisticated discussions into a robust movement. In short, they hate the rising fundamentalism sufficiently but are too incompetent to channel this hatred into a systematic counterpoise.

The mass protest strikes us with the fact that the popularly circulating discourses and practices of democracy have not been able to connect between an anxiety about the increasing political influence of fundamentalism and a necessity to counter this with a sturdy movement. The religious fundamentalist movement may exploit this gap by keeping the pressure on the state to accommodate their wishes.

Letting this action go unchallenged means allowing it to encroach on the Indonesian state’s agenda, transforming it into a more conservative outlook. Not only the state, but also more Indonesians may buy into the movement’s ideas, reshaping the contour of Indonesian politics in the future gearing toward the domination of an organized fundamentalist minority over an unorganized majority. At the same time, this image demonstrates the fate of pro-pluralism supporters as prophets without organized followers.

People need to ponder uncoupling the notion of democracy that entails all ideal things in the world from the necessity of having a movement to uphold those ideals.

Understanding democracy as a venue of political struggle among different groups allows us to be more aware of what should be done to transform our ideals into state policies.

Decrying the behavior of the Nov. 4 protesters does not help much since they are just capitalizing on a void left by the pro-pluralism supporters. We should expect more of this kind of protest. What will make a difference, however, is whether people are eager to assemble a systematic action against it.



The writer is pursuing his PhD degree in political science at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.